Literary Shelf

Poora Gyan (Complete Knowledge)

A Bold Jatak Katha Retold by Intizar Husain

Intizar Husain’s short story, ‘Complete Knowledge’ is a beautifully and effectively written short story in the tradition of ‘Jatak Katha’. All Jataka tales narrate a moral tale through the experiences of a Bodhisattva, one destined to enlightenment. 

The tradition of ‘Katha Vaachan’ where a learned speaker tells a tale of knowledge and wisdom to attentive and eager listeners is based on stories of Hindu mythology. It is a pleasant surprise for the reader to find Intizar Husain using the tradition of Hindu mythological narrative telling in such an easy, effortless and simple manner. Trust and mutual regard between the narrator and listeners is the key to this tradition. The listeners believe in the superior knowledge of the narrator and accept it. The narrator knows the attitude of the listeners, and speaks purely out of the intention to benefit, inspire and train the listeners. As it is, nothing in traditional Indian culture and religion is ever practiced without any eye for utility. The vision is that of totality, merger, osmosis and synthesis. Everything, be they rituals, hymns, practices, ceremonies- everything comes packed with a purpose. 

The narrative of Intizar Husain in this story is cute for its simplicity. The wayward son of a Brahmin undergoes a headlong change of heart with just a few simple words of his father, ‘Son, we are Brahmins. Knowledge is our wealth. Wisdom is our ornament. a Brahmin must be a man of learning.’

His father’s words pierced Manohar’s heart like a spear. He renounced all his pleasures and bent over his books. He read the Vedas, the Puranas, the Ramanaya, and the Mahabharata; he read everything. In a short while he became a learned man.’(22) How one wishes that life could be so simple where you say a few words to your son and he metamorphoses into a sincere boy ! In this post-modern world of doubt and rebellion, and multiple layers of meanings, this Katha came to me as a gust of fresh wind. Here was a narrative that meant exactly what it said; I did not have to go on searching for unsaid messages as usually the post- modernist texts require that exercise.

The story is simply marvelous for many reasons. It begins with a loaded sentence, ‘Manohar sat out on one path, but ended by taking an entirely different one.’(22) How true it is for life! One hardly knows where one is going. You intend to do one thing but life presents something entirely different. Manohar is set on the path of knowledge by his father. Manohar feels that his knowledge is immense but the great indicator of unexplored knowledge comes from his father, ‘And what about the things that haven’t been written?’(22) Then follows a period of wandering for Manohar. A small but very significant paragraph symbolizes Manohar’s quest but also the eternal human un-fulfillment, the longing, the craving. Then comes another archetypal thirst quenching scene. A beautiful woman makes Manohar conscious of his thirst. Needless to say that this thirst is not only that of water. Manohar did not know that he was thirsty. It is the sight of the woman that makes him know his needs. But without fully realizing the meaning of this meeting, Manohar leaves her for acquiring knowledge. His soul remains restless as ever.

Manohar keeps roaming, searching, seeking, hungering for finding a meaning in life. This wandering, as myth critics tell us, has a deep embedded appeal for the collective psyche. Even the civilized man of today dreams of the nomadic wanderer going about caves, mountains, rocks and cliffs innovating, thinking and making life possible for himself. Manohar finally finds a Guru, whose name (as everything else in the story is very conventional and expected) is Sampoornanandji. His name means ‘complete bliss’. Let us see as to what happens to his complete bliss.

Manohar asks the guru to give him peace of mind. The guru promptly tells him that peace blossoms from within and can be achieved only by meditation. For years together Manohar sits in meditation. But the thought of that voluptuous lady never leaves him. His meditation proves to be as futile as ever. At last, admitting defeat, he sits at the feet of his guru and begs him to give him gyan (enlightenment). Then follows a cycle of stories within the story. Guruji tries to improve Manohar by giving examples. Then come four stories of King Harcharan, Prajapati and Usha, Rishi Parashar and Vishvamitra and Menaka.

All the four stories depict the woman as the cause of all evil in the world. The fall of man, his deviation from the path of duty and virtue are shown to have been caused by woman time and again. The woman is shown to have inexplicable power to change a man’s mind. She can cause, what Italians call, thunderbolt. There is no remedy to the spell of fascination caused by a woman. If the man goes to the woman, he loses both the worlds. If he does not go to her, he remains unhappy and restless. It is a no win situation. Woman is presented as the opposite of all logic, reason and rationality. The stories bid Manohar not even talk to a woman. These highly suggestive and sensuous stories tell us about eroticism in the ancient Indian mind and literature.

Pavan K. Varma and Sandhya Mulchandani write, ‘Today, the philosophical acceptance of desire and the erotic sentiment has been asphyxiated by a hypocritical morality that has for much too long equated sex with sin and desire with guilt.’ They say that we must have ‘a glimpse of the sense of maturity and honesty that animated our ancestors.’ And again. ‘The absence of inhibition and guilt and the candor and boldness with which society set about seeking its pleasures find expression repeatedly in writings over the ages.

The literature of India, both religious and secular, is full of sexual allusions, sexual symbolisms and passages of such frank eroticism the likes of which are not to be found elsewhere in world literature.’ In this story also, limbs and gait of the woman are suggestively described. Each story ends with a tickling indication of union of man and woman and then the fall of man. The stories also create fear in the male mind regarding a woman and her contagious presence.

Manohar, however, fails to grasp anything and his yearning for the woman of his dreams increases day by day, moment by moment. The Guru gets fed up with the foolish boy and dismisses him. Manohar goes to the woman who had haunted him for years and unites with her. He blissfully lives with her. One day he recalls his father’s words and returns to the guru for ‘gyan’. The guru, however himself was undergoing great mental turmoil regarding Manohar’s behavior and the fall of so many sanyasies (ascetics) because of the mysterious power of women. Sampoornanandji was agitated. When Manohar comes to him, he is startled by the serene, peaceful, gratified look of Manohar’s beautiful face. Making Manohar sit at his place of worship, the Guru goes is search of a woman! The words of Sampoornanand that are refreshingly modern and flexible in approach are, ‘Who has ever attained complete knowledge? Human beings must search for ever.’(32) Human existence is always incomplete. Half-ness, craving, lacking, imperfection- these are human life. There is no need to force an unnatural roundness, and completion to anything related to human existence. There is no destination; the journey is the end. Defects are to be celebrated. The best that a human being can do is to keep on living, searching a meaning to life without losing hope and conviction. My pleasure in reading this story is that I did not expect such post-modernist message in a Jatak Katha.

This story written by Intizar Husain in 1960 and based on ancient Indian Jatak Kathas is so wonderfully open and trendy in its attitude. While the story goes on, the reader feels (especially if she is a woman) the depressing blames put on women. A woman simply exists. She does not do anything. and yet she is held responsible for all misery and vices in the world. Needless to say that the ideas look bogus, off beat, rotten, unfair and dogmatic. They choke a woman as a sex object; her very being, her body and breathing are held her crimes. But the end is to nice; it is simply superb. The mouth that poured venom on the woman at last craves for her. The creature that Sampoornanand cursed beckons him commandingly and he goes. However, the narrative attempts no hint at the will and wish of the woman concerned. The choice is all man’s. The big question is whether a man should go to a woman or not; the thought that woman may also want to make her choices regarding her physical life and regarding her partner never occur to the writer. that a woman may also like to reject a relationship is nowhere in the mental makeup of the writer and it is quite natural. No one ever bothered about the likes and dislikes, whims and wishes, views and vows of a woman. There is no point in doing a feminist dissection of the piece.

On one hand, the end reinforces the fearful power of women, on the other hand, it tells us not to comment on things that we do not know. You have first to experience a thing in order to analyze it.

The traditional wisdom, Eastern, or Western, never fails to emphasize on the corrupting influence of women over guileless men. According to it, women compel men to deviate from the noble path. A woman is a distraction. Eve came under the influence of the infernal serpent, and forced innocent Adam to eat the forbidden apple and go against the divine will. Menaka ruined Vishvamitra’s meditation, and thereby his future prospects of attaining godhood. The examples are numerous. Bhartihari writes in Shatakatrayam,

Discrimination’s lucid light
Continues to shine for learned men
Only when it is not eclipsed
By the tremulous lashes of women’s eyes.

Similarly Rig Veda says, ‘...with women there can be no lasting friendship; their hearts are the hearts of jackals.’ (Quoted by Varma and Mulchandani)

In the Indian context, the woman becomes either a ‘devi’ or a devil. The Indian mind rejects the middle path, where actually the truth lies. To me, the woman as the source of all evil, this dictum, underlies a deep seated fear in the male psyche. The defencelessness, the helplessness, the utter futility of any effort, any protest before the charms of a woman, the realization of one’s own weakness, and vulnerability has shaped the male mind to come to a conclusion that woman is the source of evil or rather woman is evil. The point to be noted, however, is that the cause of the fall (if deviation from the spiritual path be called a fall) lies with the male inadequacy to deal with a woman’s raw appeal and not with the woman herself. Apart from this deep rooted psychological fear, the narcissistic instincts of male dominated human existence refuse to recognize anything other than male. Female is held as the ‘other’ and the moment she is held as the ‘other’, all the hostility, reactionary approach, fear and what not crop up.

I am reminded of the wonderful words of Gray Kochha-Lindgren, ‘... Narcissus longs only for the possession of the evanescent reflection of himself that shimmers in a glassy pond. This obsessive self-reflection leads not to the wisdom of self-understanding, which reflection so often claims for itself, but to death... The narcissistic logic of this self-reflection, which is simultaneously murderous and suicidal, is a truncated symbolic dialectic that lacks the capacity to recognize that which is other than itself.’

Intizar Husain as a writer is an excellent example of his own kind. away from the communal bitterness created by politicians out of selfishness, Husain was one of those who believed ‘it was always possible for different communities to create a life of complex and pluralistic wholeness.’(ix) He simply says, ‘I am a Muslim, but I always feel that there is a Hindu sitting inside me.’(xi) Accepting his heterogeneous Indian background, Husain says, ‘I have no idea what a purely Islamic culture is.’(x) Pained at the avoidable, unnecessary and tragic partition of our motherland, Husain never got used to a Lahore based, purely Pakistani existence. He compared fate-forced moving of his likes to Pakistan with hijrat (exodus) of the Prophet and his followers to Madina.
Alok Bhalla, the translator of Husain’s stories, in his brilliant analysis says, ‘He was not, he said, a man of strong religious beliefs, but the place where he had been born, the basti which had nurtured him in his childhood, still had its mysterious charm and pull. For him, watan (homeland). He insisted, was not merely defined by the territory within which he now claimed his rightful citizenship, it was also the larger civilizational space from which he derived his imaginative strength. That is why, he said sadly, as if echoing the sentiments of countless migrants during the partition,’ I still feel that I am an exile who wanders between Karbala and Ayodhya.’ I should add that his Ayodhya was not a real place on some political map, but the utopian kingdom of Rama, where an examined life of truth and moral law alone can confirm god’s presence; and his Karbala was not the present city with a specific geographical location, but a richly imagined site where the traditions of the Prophet gave life a coherence, a reason and a balance.’(xii)

The stories of Husain and this story in particular underline a fundamental principal of life that the most difficult thing in this life is to be easy, simple and good. The ordinary things are not all that ordinary. Life is all about making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, being kind to others, not to burn in revenge and hatred all the time, and enjoy doing common things. Religion, philosophy, rituals, nationhood, identity- all these concepts are valid only when they spread love, peace, and make life livable. If religion, and ideology break the social fabric and mental peace of individuals, they are useless.

The very title of the story ‘Poora Gyan’ points the flexible approach of Husain. Instead of Sanskrit word, ‘gyan’ he could have used the Urdu work ‘ilm’ in order to establish himself as a pucca Urdu writer. But he does not do so. So it goes with the sources of his stories.
I wish to quote Bhalla at length, ‘Trying to give shape to his unique understanding of the Muslim identity in the Indian subcontinent, Intizar Husain draws freely and imaginatively upon the rich and fascinating narrative traditions of the Indian subcontinent found in such diverse sources as the Katha Sarit Sagar, Puranic lore, Sufi legends, religious epics, Jataka tales, popular lore about talking animals and birds, Hatamtai, anecdotes about rishis, who have the learning to challenge the gods but are yet fallible. a thoroughly modern writer, he uses them to reflect upon religious faith and identity, historical truths and modern delusions, power and the endless failure of reason. thus, in his telling of the Jatakas, he points out how difficult it is in the present to locate the ‘good’ and on the basis of our understanding of it, perform the right action in the public realm. In the older Jatakas both these actions are unproblematic. The good is unambiguously located in the Bodhisattva and is available to in every generation to all living things. The Bodhisattava is reborn as a man, a woman, a king, a woodcutter, a witch, a tree or a monkey. Each reincarnation of the Bodhisattava reasserts the fact that good is eternally available and each story about him recalls for us the fact, which we tend to forget, that ordinary people, with the most limited of intellectual and material resources, can always recognize the good man and follow his example. The Bodhisattva of these tales is the ideal man whose personal inwardness is never distinct from his public actions. He is a self governing moral agent who always acts responsibly towards the rest of creation.

‘In Intizar Husain’s rendering of the Jatakas, one is at first enchanted by the tranquility of the forest and by the silence of the bhikshus who walk through them. Unlike the listeners of the old Jatakas, we are located in world which is noisy and agitated. Intizar Husain startles us by reminding us of the fact that even though we live in cities, the realm of trees, birds, rivers, animals, and the sky is in our neighbourhood and that we are both dependent on it and responsible for it... In the old Jatakas, such a lesson would have been enough to make people see, in the world around them, signs of the divine presence. The pilgrims of Intizar Husain, however are like us...

The bhikshus in Intizar Husain’s stories understand the lessons taught to them, but they do not know how to act correctly. They fail to understand that an action is ‘right’ only if it is based in the ‘good’. a good man can, at times, make mistakes without jeopardizing his goodness, but a man who has not achieved wisdom can perform the right action and yet bring disaster upon himself and others.

The bhikshus in Jatakas, who found themselves in the presence of the Bodhisattva, never went back to their old ways of ignorant living. The bhikshus in Intizar Husain’s stories are told a countless number of moral tales, but fail to recognize how the ‘good’ can be achieved in the world in which they live. They cannot reconcile the beauty of the world and the joy of the senses with the demands of renunciation; the demands of humanity with the fear of entrapment in the vast network of illusions. Like many of the protagonists in his Partition tales, they find themselves staring at blank spaces where identities are utterly confused. At the end they give up their quest and are stranded on the border between forests and villages, rational knowledge and uncontrolled passion, religious faith and despair. The learned man of ‘Complete Knowledge’ thinks that evil will always be with us and is paralyzed by that knowledge...’(xvii)

Sampoornanand has no answer to raw sexuality. His ‘gyan’ proves inadequate in dealing with the demands of the body. But the funniest part is that sexuality has been bracketed with evil. My argument is against this is a foolish presumption. The whole Indian psyche is pervaded by concepts of evil, sin, guilt and fall when it comes to man-woman relationship. The healthy spirit of sharing, understanding, intimacy, caring and reciprocity is totally missing. Man-woman relationship is weighed in terms of domination, exploitation, power, money, winning and losing. Emotions have been thrown out of the window. Relationships are bound to prove inadequate and unsatisfying in such a scenario. Although much has changed; still unfortunately basic Indian mentality remains the same.

Works Cited:

  1. Gray Kochhar-Lindgren. 1993. Narcissus Transformed- The Textual Subject in Psychoanalysis and Literature. Pennsylvania: the Pennsylvania State University Press.
  2. Intizar Husain. 2002. A Chronicle of Peacocks- Stories of Partition, Exile and Lost Memories. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  3. Pavan Varma and Sandhya Mulchandani. 2004. Love and Lust- An Anthology of Erotic Literature from Ancient and Medieval India. New Delhi: Harper Collins, India Today.


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

Top | Literary Shelf

Views: 3340      Comments: 4

Comment I stand corrected, Dr. Bhat. While 'Chitralekha' came in 1934, Intizar Husain was born in 1923. Thank You!

Prof. Shubha Tiwari
21-Sep-2011 11:55 AM

Comment I agree with your views on the roles of men and women, but I have serious doubts about your chronology. The book Chitralekha had already become a movie in 1941 and a best seller before that; and Hussain was born in 1923, so it is highly unlikely that he could have written and published the Manoj story in his teens to antedate the movie and Verma's book which was written even earlier. Anyway, if you wish, you can comment on the commonality and differences between the moral lessons of both the stories.

gaurang bhatt

gaurang bhatt
20-Sep-2011 08:45 AM

Comment Thanks, Dr. Bhat for your scholarly comments. Intizar Husain wrote earlier than Bhagwati Charan Verma. The Jataka tale is, of course, centuries old. You have rightly point out the difference between the male and the female of the sprcies. But if we focus our attention only on the difference, much injustice can happen to the female. Common points should also be stressed so as to ensure normal, democratic and human rights of women. In an atmosphere of commonality and understanding, women feel better. The relationships are also more satisfying. That's my perception.

Prof. Shubha Tiwari
20-Sep-2011 00:56 AM

Comment Such a pleasure to read a nice article. I have a few comments and questions. Do you think the story of Manoj and Sampoornanand is a variation on the main theme of "Chitralekha" by Bhagwati Charan Verma? The point of emphasis being that it is easy to renounce something that one does not know, have or can even conceive of.
Thus the weakness of Vishwamitra and others On the other hand it was so very difficult to arouse erotic feelings in Shiva, the widower after remarriage to Parvati, that the Devas had to send Kama for the job and he got burnt to ashes by the ire of Shiva. Or was it Shiva's anger at his own weakness? The birth of Kumara or Kartikeya was essential for the preservation of the hegemony of the Devas over the Asura Surapadman or Mahisha and one of the myths of the birth of Skanda is even more weird than I care to describe.
As to blaming the woman for the inherent weakness and faults of a man. It is a common psychological defense, like transference of guilt, blame and responsibility.
"Are saaqi, mai ne to nahi piney ki kasam khai thi per tere haath kis ney thaam rakhe the?
A somewhat lame but valid evolutionary psychology based reason for male behavior like purdah, zanaana, chastity belt, Sita pareekshaa, Whore-Madonna syndrome etc.
Human children need a lot of parental effort and investment from both parents and while the maternal origin of every child is certain, who knows for certain who is the father, before DNA testing. No man likes to be cuckolded into inadvertently raises some other man's children from his wife. Hence in Jewish law, the child of only a Jewish mother is born a Jew.
Lastly a more modern and recently known basis for blaming the female. In all of nature there is a history of even gang rape by males (in dolphins), forcible domination of harem (gorillas and elephant seals), but never killing of female by male for sexual reasons. In the black widow spider and many other spider species, it is routine for the female to eat the male after copulation. So the father gives his life to serve as nourishing food for his future children.
Interestingly, the male spider after copulation often plugs up the female's passage with mucus which hardens to prevent penetration by another male. New evidence in Leucauge argyra spiders shoes the evolution of plugging by the female herself instead of the male, but just after copulation. the poor naive male ignorant of this trickery like the amusing custom of which spouse sits down first after the Hindu wedding ceremony of "mangal pheraa", attempts to put in its own plug. Now spiders have not yet evolved a special appendage or organ to insert sperm or mucus into the female introitus and use one of its eight legs. The male spider's leg gets stuck in the hardening mucus placed by the female with premeditated lethal intention, and his prospects of a rapid escape become zero. The female then leisurely has him for a meal to serve as nutrients for the progeny she will give birth to. For those with a sense of humor, no wonder the female always gets the blame.
A worse case is that of the females of the firefly genus photuris which emits flashes at a frequency used by another genus to attract males. The males of this different genus are attracted by the flashing frequency and try to mate but are devoured by the female and do not even attain the transient bliss of male spiders.
Evolution has built males to be aggressive and hypersexual to ensure the propagation of the species, and females sensible, more peaceful and nurturing for the same rationale. If both sexes become alike, it leads to more frequent breakdown of the family. Some site that as a cause for the future decline of the West, though it is neither the main, nor the sole factor.
Lastly, the Jatak Kathas were made up much after the death of Buddha to put him on an equal footing with the avataars of Vishnu and attract gullible Hindus.. During his life and in the many sutras (oral first, written later and some of whose best English translations for those unfamiliar with Sanskrit, are by Franklin Edgerton and available in some libraries in the US), the phrases which recur ad nauseam are "the tathagata did not say this , nor did he say that (about the origin of the universe, metaphysics or anything else), but only about the eightfold path, break the cycle of Dukha and attain Nirvana (extinction or freedom) from the cycle of rebirth.
Gaurang Bhatt

gaurang bhatt
19-Sep-2011 10:22 AM

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.